Only One: The Highlander-inspired iPad game you’ve been waiting for

February 15, 2014

Believe it or not, we have almost reached the 30th anniversary for the movie Highlander, which made its debut on March 7, 1986.

I saw Highlander at a movie theater the week it came out. It was 100% teen fantasy, which was perfect for me because I was 15 at the time. The central premise—a group of immortal men fighting to be the last one standing—is pure video game fodder. But surprisingly, gamers haven’t been able to play a Highlander experience since 1995, when Highlander: The Last of The MacLeods was released by Atari for the Atari Jaguar. (The box art for this game is indeed legendary.)

Until now, that game was…the only one. Actually, this isn’t true – Ocean Software released a Highlander game for the ZX Spectrum in 1986 on cassette tape. And Square Enix cancelled a Highlander game for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2010. I really just wanted to use the phrase “…only one.”

Whatever. Now that Ernest Szoka has released the 8-bit combat-action brawling Only One for the iPad and iOS, I can use the phrase as much as I want.

Inspired and influenced heavily by Highlander, Only One begins with the player’s character teleporting onto a pillar floating in some ethereal plane. Once you pick up your sword in the center of the pillar, the fight is on. Wave after wave of enemies begin appearing, and your mission is to outlast them all. Fighters, Archers, Mages, and green and red blobs relentlessly chase and attack.

Your only defense is a powerful offense. Initially, you only have a sword to fight with, but as you play, you gain access to a series of fairly interesting power-ups. These can be gained in a fairly straightforward fashion—as you defeat opponents, you pick up Power points you can spend on upgrades. You can also knock enemies off of the fighting platform, which is particularly gratifying.

The controls are simple. A floating directional pad on the left side of the screen allows you to move your character around, and a series of action buttons on the right side allow you to attack and execute your special powers.

True 8-bit style means authentic blocky, pixelated graphics, old-school sound effects, and even harshly mixed arcade-style voice effects and blood-curdling screams. The game also features boss battles that also stay true to the Highlander, 8-bit theme. I’m talking staff-toting mages blasting you with fireballs, and over-sized knights who defend themselves with over-sized shields.

Free-to-Play and other action games can learn a lesson from Only One in how elegantly and efficiently it introduces players to the upgrades that you can choose. In the early going, the game frequently pauses itself to give you a choice between two items. The first time this happened, I fully expected the buy-this-for-real-money hustle to go down. I was pleasantly surprised when it did not.

Yes, you can purchase extra Power points you can spend on extra items, but these in-app purchases don’t feel unfairly accessible. Even without the purchased upgrades, you still gain a fair amount of special active and passive bonuses simply by playing the game.

While Only One is available for all iOS devices, the iPad’s bigger screen makes it a lot more fun to play on that platform. The use of a single life (you have hearts and shields for health) really makes it feel like you’re playing a coin-op game in the late 80s.

The only real bummer here is the absence of a Highlander license. Perhaps the sequel?

Other selected iPad games at

Other tablet games I’m playing

1. The Nightjar: Not sure how I missed it, but I just stumbled across this 2012 game for the first time. Benedict Cumberbatch voices over a game with no video. The premise is that you’re stranded on a ship about to be devoured by a black hole, and can only use sound to escape. (Available for iOS.)

2. Threes: I am hopelessly hooked on this puzzle game. It is classic in that it is easy enough to play that you think you’re good, but mastering it requires some real head scratching. (Available for iOS.)

3. PolyFauna: A collaboration between Radiohead and app maker Universal Everything, inspired the song Bloom. Very, very cool, and free. (Available for iOS.)

4. Badland: The announcement that Frogmind, the developer, dropped the price to $2 in the memory of Flappy Bird made me pick this up again. Simply stated, it is a true revelation.  (Available for Android and iOS.)

5. Hoplite: I’m still playing this remarkable turn-based strategy roguelike. Can’t quit. (Available for Android and iOS.) 

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